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Journey to the Summer Palace

Winter scene at the Summer Palace

Even in the smog, the lake is undeniably beautiful. Nearby the vendors offer bags of freshly grilled corn on the cob and skewers of candied Chinese hawthorns. I am observing the frozen waters from the Pavilion of Heralding Spring, where the weeping willows are the first to bud and the ice already broken.

China has always had a penchant for extraordinary feats of engineering: the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and a two thousand year old irrigation system in Sichuan. Although on a somewhat smaller scale, Kunming Lake appears to be no different. Covering 2.2 square kilometres, it was carved out of the landscape by a team of almost 10,000 labourers, who piled the soil on its northern shore to create Longevity Hill.

I remember the Summer Palace as a tranquil, idyllic place, but at the Long Corridor those memories are brutally shattered. Beneath the panels of painted legends, I am squeezed between two groups of package tourists, their members followed by the incessant calls of touts peddling fake Rolexes and overpriced knickknacks. Just as the corridor begins to turn, I step out of the claustrophobic madness and breathe a sigh of relief.

Bronze Ox and the Seventeen-Arch Bridge

Ice walkers on Kunming Lake

Guardian lions, Seventeen-Arch Bridge

The bridge from Nanhu Island

The journey, not the destination.

On the east side of the old city an escalator hums the tune of Beijing’s frenzied dash into the 21st century. It’s nearing twelve noon and I am at the northeastern exit of Dongsi Station, meeting the close friend of a local contact. Outside a lone man on the phone stands waiting by a featureless grey wall. I breeze up to him, albeit a little unsure. “Are you Mr. Wang?”

He nods his head and smiles. Mr. Wang is a lao beijingren, an “Old Beijinger” born and raised in the city. As we cross a pedestrian overpass he begins by filling me in on some local history. Once upon a time four ceremonial gateways – or pailou – marked the area’s main intersection. But in the 1950s these gateways were torn down, following the example of the ancient Ming Dynasty city walls. Today countless places across central Beijing are named for landmarks that are no longer there – Dongsi, literally “Eastern four”, is just one of them.

“I’ll take you to the kind of place that only Beijing people go.” We pass a wonton joint and another local restaurant, neither one filled up with lunch-goers. The latter, Mr. Wang points out, has been here for over a hundred years.

A few steps away an open storefront beckons with the aroma of freshly-cooked noodles. Through a glass door we duck into an ageing food court, dimly lit by the fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling. Mr. Wang has brought me here for a meal of Beijing xiaochi, small snacks and dishes that are an integral part of the city’s culinary fabric.

When my eyes adjust to the darkness I immediately notice the wizened faces of the clientele. Along one wall the counters are piled high with all sorts of pastries, and above them rows of characters give an exhaustive list of their names and prices.

“These are specialties of the Hui people.”

The Hui are a Muslim ethnic minority from the northwest, who after centuries of migration, have exerted a powerful influence on Beijing’s local cuisine. Mr. Wang picks out a selection of sweet pastries, among them the thickly-skinned ai wowo, a bun stuffed with pellets of white sugar. There’s a sticky roll filled with sesame paste, and a generous slab of tasteless yellow bean pudding.

Mr. Wang is keen to introduce me to as many dishes as possible, and we share two bowls of sour soy milk and several youtiao – deep-fried dough – formed in the shape of onion rings. I break off half a youtiao and dip it into my wheat porridge, or miancha, its contents slathered with a thick layer of delicious sesame sauce.

“Do you want to try some jian bing?” He asks me. “Yes, of course.” I have no idea what that is. Mr. Wang disappears for a while, leaving me with my miancha and the unfinished yellow bean pudding. When he returns, it is with a steaming pair of large folded dumplings, each one liberally coated in scrambled egg. I take one mouthful and am instantly in heaven. Stuffed with tofu skins, bean sprouts and tender slices of meat, it is the perfect xiaochi for Beijing’s harsh winters.

Pavilion of Heralding Spring

A hazy afternoon

Mallards on the lake

Longevity Hill in the smog

Pavement calligraphy


Back on the metro Mr. Wang is gesturing for me to exit the train. We are still one stop away from the Summer Palace but he has suddenly decided on an alternate route. “We’ll stop at my house for tea.”

Once outside the dry, dusty air leaves me desperately thirsting for water. I can feel the pollution itching and clumping in my throat, and I realise why it is that people here have the urge to spit in public.

Mr. Wang lives in a four-storey housing estate, kept low-rise so as not to disturb the ambience of the Summer Palace. He walks in and stamps on the ground. In a typical Beijing apartment complex, the sensor for the common area lights is buried somewhere beneath the concrete. He’s apologetic as we reach the door of his ground floor apartment. “We’re moving in a couple of weeks so it’s a bit of a mess.”

The door swings open and I am drawn into the toasty warmth of his home. In the middle of the living room Mr. Wang points out his collection of potted plants. “I keep them here to give the air some humidity,” he adds. “Winters in Beijing are just too dry.” There are a few cactuses and a stand of narcissus left over from Chinese New Year. As he disappears to the kitchen, I give the flowers a quick sniff. The fragrance reminds me of my childhood days.

Mr. Wang has an elaborate tea set, centred on a clay platter coloured a beautiful deep brown hue. Among other items, a frog and a smiling Buddha take up two corners of the platter. “Do you prepare tea like this in Hong Kong?” he asks. I shake my head. “No, not with this many steps.”  With the care of a temple priest, Mr. Wang pours the first jug over the smiling Buddha and brushes the runoff into a collector. He refills the teapot, resting it upside down over a porcelain cup before serving.

I haven’t had tea like this in the longest time. When I inquire about the kind he uses, Mr. Wang holds up a large red packet of tea leaves. “This is Oolong – the kind we call “Iron Goddess”. It usually costs about 700 to 800 renminbi.” I gape, realising the price of his hospitality, but he is quick to laugh it off. “Well, it’s an expensive hobby.”

On his smart phone Mr. Wang shows me pictures of the Summer Palace draped in snow. I am spellbound by the sheer beauty jumping out from every frame. “This was in November… we haven’t had any major snowfalls since then.” I scroll to a collection of summer sunsets, marvelling at the clouds bursting with vibrant colours over Kunming Lake. Although he is moving to the far side of Beijing, Mr. Wang remains clear about his eventual plan to return. The Summer Palace, after all, is his beloved neighbourhood park.

Mr. Wang sips on another oolong and gets to his feet.

“Come, we should go before it’s too late.”

Pavilion of Buddhist Incense

The Long Corridor

Lakeside gateway (pailou) and bronze lion

Below Longevity Hill

Empress Cixi’s Marble Boat

Frozen in time, Kunming Lake

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post! Remember the throngs of people in the painted corridor as well! Sure was claustrophobic! And that perpetual haze! Sounds like Mr.Wang enhanced your visit considerably! Thanks for sharing

    March 13, 2012
    • Thanks Madhu! I was really looking forward to the Long Corridor – so you can imagine my disappointment when I got there! Unfortunately I chose the one day with terrible smog to go to the Summer Palace… but otherwise the weather was very kind in Beijing.

      March 13, 2012
  2. A friend of mine who has gone to Beijing keeps telling me to go to the city. She loves it for so many reasons. This Summer Palace is one of them. Now I see why she’s so in love with it.
    The color of the sky due to the smog reminds me of the same hue on my first visit to Singapore more than a year ago. It’s beautiful actually, in a way.
    By the way, throughout my life I’ve only tried green and black tea, never had any oolong tea yet. Curious.

    March 13, 2012
    • I felt like that one week in Beijing was just enough for me to see everything I wanted. It is packed with history and chances are that you will find an ancient monument wherever you turn.

      You would love Oolong, the one I tried had a rich, roasty kind of flavour and was very refreshing on a cold day.

      March 13, 2012
  3. you make beijing look so pretty in all your pics, like!!

    March 13, 2012
    • Thanks! Beijing sure is beautiful though, even in the smog!

      March 13, 2012
  4. I always look forward to experiences like that; a true local showing me around. What a difference it makes! Hope that happens when I get to South America in a few weeks!!!

    March 14, 2012
    • I would have missed out on a lot if it weren’t for Mr. Wang. Have a safe trip to South America!

      March 14, 2012
  5. Wow James! These are wonderful photos! How much have you written on China? I am so behind and haven’t had a chance to check your ChIna posts out. Let me know where to start reading!!!!! I will get to them! Where are you from? Nicole

    March 15, 2012
    • Thank you Nicole! I haven’t written that much on China, but you can start here before working your way through the first page:

      I hail from Hong Kong, but I was born in Singapore and grew up spending a month every year in Canada. My dad’s family emigrated there in the 60s and have stayed put ever since.

      I still have one more post to come on the Great Wall, hopefully that will be done sometime over the weekend!

      March 15, 2012
  6. Awesome pictures my friend .

    March 21, 2012
  7. Wow!

    April 7, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 2012: a year in review | Plus Ultra
  2. Journey to the Summer Palace | Bonjour! C'est moi.

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